Elite Models to Fork Over $450,000 to Unpaid Interns in Class Action Settlement

The latest unpaid intern vs. employer legal case has developed quite differently from some of the more drawn out and litigious cases we've heard about over the past couple of years.
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Dhani Mau
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The latest unpaid intern vs. employer legal case has developed quite differently from some of the more drawn out and litigious cases we've heard about over the past couple of years.
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The latest unpaid intern vs. employer legal case has developed quite differently from some of the more drawn out and litigious cases we've heard about over the past couple of years.

Back in February, a former Elite Model Management intern slapped the modeling agency with a $50 million lawsuit. Plaintiff Dajia Davenport interned during the summer of 2010 and claimed that Elite “deliberately misclassifies its interns as exempt from wage requirements,” despite having them work over 40 hours per week. Less than a year later, the two parties are reaching a settlement. As a result, Elite won't be paying up $50 million for a class action lawsuit, but the interns involved will be getting compensated.

On Friday, the District Court for the Southern District of New York approved a $450,000 class action settlement, guaranteeing participating interns a minimum payment of $700, and as much as $1,750. It's the largest settlement of an intern class action to date.

While the money has not yet been doled out, the settlement has been approved, which means that a notice can now be sent out to interns, who will then be given the opportunity to participate by submitting a claim form. The compensation amounts are estimates based on thorough research. Seven hundred dollars, for instance, would cover minimum wage for someone who worked for a four-week period, explained Steven L. Wittels, whose law firm Wittels Law is handling the case. He described it as "a very favorable sum to the interns."

When asked whether it was normal for a company to settle and be so amenable to the plaintiff around an issue so seemingly up-for-debate as unpaid unternships, he explained, "We can see from litigation involving Hearst that companies can choose to fight all the way," but that, simply, "Elite's a reasonable company that decided to do the right thing. They should be commended."

It's not the first time the interns have won in a case like this. Two unpaid production interns from the film Black Swan successfully sued their employer when a federal district court judge in New York ruled this past June that Fox Searchlight Pictures should have paid them (though, Fox is trying to appeal).

Since then, lawsuits have been brought against Condé Nast and Warner Music Group, both of which are still pending. Meanwhile, a former Hearst intern's infamous attempt to bring a class action lawsuit against the publishing house was dismissed when a judge denied its class-action status. Which is another big difference between the Hearst case and the Elite case: The latter qualified as class action, allowing Elite to settle everything at once.

As more unpaid internship lawsuits are inevitably brought up against companies, it will be interesting to see if they go this smoothly.